Published: 12:29, May 31, 2023 | Updated: 12:34, May 31, 2023
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Youngsters proud to take 'bridge' to China
By Chang Jun in San Francisco

Finalists display proficiency in speech, demonstrate talent at Chinese language and culture competition

Sage Houdek from the Yinghua Academy in Minneapolis, who won the championship in the elementary school category, poses with one of her Chinese paintings with calligraphy. (CHANG JUN / CHINA DAILY)

Zakhar Likuev, a 10-year-old from the Hope Chinese Charter School in Oregon, fluently recited the Three Character Classic, commonly known as San Zi Jing, which highlights Confucian morality and wisdom.

Likuev, who waved a red ribbon and tapped his feet to the beat on Saturday, was among the six K-12 finalists who showcased their proficiency in the Chinese language and culture. They were competing for two seats in the International Chinese Bridge Finals this summer in Beijing.

According to Tang Jun, the education consul at the Chinese Consulate General in San Francisco, the six have defeated about 1,000 peers in earlier state-level preliminaries from Oregon, North Carolina, Minnesota, California and beyond, and represent the talent of the highest level in the Chinese language and culture studies in the United States.

Within an approximately 10-minute time frame, three elementary schoolers needed to finish a free topic speech themed "Chinese, Joy and Fun"; a Q&A session with a judges' panel; and a talent show.

The three middle schoolers needed to deliver a speech themed "Fly high with Chinese"; a Q&A session; a talent show; and were quizzed on their knowledge about current Chinese news, history and cultural anecdotes.

"We are especially excited to bring the 16th Chinese Bridge-Chinese Proficiency Competition for Foreign Secondary School Students and the 3rd Chinese Bridge-Chinese Show for Foreign Primary School Students back to an in-person setting this year," Tang said, adding that the competition was held online during the pandemic.

Sage Houdek, a fifth grader from the Yinghua Academy in Minneapolis, has the Chinese name Yan Lirui, which literally means "agile and wise". The 10-year-old, in red traditional Chinese costume, said she was "very lucky" to be able to attend a Chinese immersion program from an early age.

Although her first day at kindergarten was tough because she couldn't understand even one Chinese word and she cried to her parents, Houdek didn't quit.

Zakhar Likuev from the Hope Chinese Charter School in Oregon, takes a picture with his parents on Saturday after the Chinese Bridge competition. (CHANG JUN / CHINA DAILY)

Honing skills

The whole family cultivated a Chinese-learning environment, she said, citing the example of how they learned to use chopsticks. "We failed many times, but no one quit, and we finally had mastered the tricks," she said, adding that's why her favorite Chinese idiom is "One-minute glamour in the spotlight means (there has been) 10 years of tedious rehearsal down the stage".

Learning Chinese has opened the door, Houdek said, "through which I am able to better understand the other parts of the world".

Houdek also immerses herself in Chinese culture by studying holiday rituals, customs, Chinese calligraphy, drawings and dance, as well as playing traditional Chinese folk music on the violin.

"My family now observes the Chinese New Year the Chinese way — we decorate our house with red lanterns, paste the Spring Festival couplets, and make dumplings," she said.

Ivana Moreno, a ninth grader at Lick-Wilmerding High School in San Francisco, is grateful for having the opportunity to study China. "I have enriched my understanding not only about China, its culture and language, but also its people," said Moreno, who is called Meng Huixin in Chinese.

Born and raised in a non-Chinese speaking family, Moreno started learning three languages — Chinese, Spanish and English — at age 3.

To continue honing her Chinese skills, Moreno's parents dropped her off every Saturday morning at a Chinese couple's residence for a two-hour session — to learn Chinese brush painting from the husband and Chinese language from the wife.

Moreno attended a Chinese immersion school when she turned 5.Through a project-based curriculum such as constructing energy-saving houses for Chinese people; field study trips to China's Yunnan province; and random conversations with local citizens, Moreno has "made many friends, and came to realize differences in our cultures".

"People-to-people exchanges of this kind are so sincere, so warm, yet so powerful (and) lifted my understanding of China as a whole," Moreno said.

Moreno said she wants to be a teacher in the future. "I like children and believe it's rewarding to work with young minds," she said.

Zhang Jianmin, China's consul general in San Francisco, congratulated the contestants, particularly Houdek and Moreno, as both finished first in their respective categories.

"China feels proud of its 5,000 years of history and its rich culture," he said. "Both Chinese and American peoples are great, and we deserve better friendship and mutual understanding."

Li Yue, president of the Chinese Language Teachers Association of California, who has more than 20 years of Chinese-language teaching experience, sat on the judges' panel.

She said the depth and width of "Chinese Bridge" keep expanding over the years, as contestants demonstrate ever-improving linguistic and cultural talents, interests and achievements.

Ivana Moreno from Lick-Wilmerding High School in San Francisco, who won the championship in the middle school category, performs Chinese martial arts in the talent show on Saturday. (CHANG JUN / CHINA DAILY)

Joint efforts

"This is a nice outcome of joint efforts among educators, parents and our students," said Li. "Performances of contestants, in general, are very impressive."

Thomas Gold, another judge at Saturday's competition, said it is more urgent than ever for more young citizens to study China, its language and culture, as the bilateral relationship is facing severe challenges.

Gold, who was among the first US-government-funded exchange students and studied in Shanghai in the late 1970s, later became a sociology professor at UC Berkeley and worked as the executive director of a program for Chinese language studies there from 2006 to 2016.

"The more challenging the bilateral relationship, the more Americans we need to acquire adequate, pragmatic knowledge of China," Gold said. "Misconceptions and hostilities only recede when conversations begin."

Consul General Zhang said to contestants: "You represent the future. … It's important to appreciate other cultures even though we see many differences."

The Chinese Bridge Competition, an annual international Chinese language and culture contest, is sponsored by the Center for Language Education and Cooperation and conducted worldwide.